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Fat Doesn't Mean Unhealthy: Obesity, Judgment, and Chicken McNuggets

Seventeen-year-old Stacey Irvine's Chicken McNuggets diet has driven her to the hospital. She's also (gasp!) thin.

Last week, The Daily Mail profiled Stacey Irvine, a teenage English factory worker who claims to subsist almost exclusively on McDonald's chicken nuggets and fries. According to the Mail, Irvine has suffered from breathing problems, anemia, and inflamed veins due to her diet., and recently was rushed to the hospital after she collapsed. The story—paired with windswept photos of Irvine posing with pieces of breaded chicken, or reclining in a bed of Happy Meal toys—provided fodder for press outlets around the world.

It's also inspired timely commentary from health "experts." Last week, a PR agency pitched me a story pegged to Irvine's collapse. A "weight loss specialist" could be made available to "comment on the dangers of Stacey's addiction" and "speak to the dangers of childhood obesity." The doctor in question has "specialized in the study and treatment of Bariatric Medicine" and has "directed the operation of multiple Weight Loss Centers."

Thanks, but according to the gratuitous Daily Mail glamour shots, Irvine is thin. Her health problems are not related to obesity, and they won't be solved by stapling her stomach. Yet we're so culturally hardwired to believe that unhealthy equals fat and vice versa that even photographic evidence (full-body photographs of Irvine were attached to the PR email) isn't enough to break the habit.

And this bariatric surgeon isn't the only onlooker flummoxed by Irvine's body type. "[S]he manages to remain thin and cute as a button," one outlet proclaimed. "Now, she may not be the perfect body by any means, but you wouldn't look at her and immediately assume she has the worst diet on the planet," another wrote.

In fact, such dietary assumptions are often baseless, no matter how "cute as a button" the subject appears. No one should administer moral judgements on the basis of a person's body, not just because those types of observations are rude, but also because they're wrong. A constellation of studies shows that heavier patients are more likely to survive cardiac events; that fat can help protect against a variety of diseases, including diabetes; and that fat people often live longer than thin ones. A recent 16-year study on the issue underlined the fact that a nutritious diet and sufficient exercise does not necessarily correspond to a slim body mass index and that attempting to lose weight can do more harm than good.

Yes, fat can be healthy. Thin can be unhealthy. So whenever we make assumptions about a person's lifestyle based on weight, we should know that our judgment is really based on aesthetics, not health. If we won't listen to the many fat acceptance experts who have been telling us this for years, maybe we'll listen to a "cute" thin girl whose diet is killing her.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Calgary Reviews

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